Rihanna Rated R Def Jam
Considering the year she’s had, you can’t fault Rihanna for veering into some dark territory with her new album.
For “Rated R,” Rihanna pretty much followed the same formula that made her last album, “Good Girl Gone Bad,” a smash hit (i.e., lots of big-name outside producers and songwriters). The results find Rihanna still cranking out slickly produced pop music, but some might find “Rated R” lacking that certain something.
While “Good Girl” overflowed with brash, bouncy, radio-ready pop songs, “Rated R” is stocked with plodding, moody songs often punctuated with lyrics about fire and gunplay (not to mention the occasional f-bomb), especially on the first half of the album. “Hard,” the only exception on the first half, is the only track that comes close to the party swagger of the last album.
Some of the tracks are better for this gloomy vibe. “Rockstar 101,” featuring former Guns ’n’ Roses guitarist Slash, is a gritty and unapologetic ode to hedonistic celebrity club-hopping. “Fire Bomb” is a meditative and elegant track augmented by an undercurrent of metallic guitars.
Things lighten up on the second half of the album. “Rude Boy” and “Photographs” are both pleasantly upbeat and synth-happy, the latter benefiting greatly from the presence of Will.I.am from the Black Eyed Peas. “Te Amo” is another great track, benefiting from a deft intermingling of synths and Latin percussion.
Justin Timberlake’s fingerprints are all over the track he wrote for the album, “Cold Case Love,” which boasts the most rhythmically complex and epic composition on the record.
Perhaps the best moment on the album is “The Last Song,” a majestic slow-burner of a track that builds to a great climax.
One thing is for sure: Despite all the controversy and drama, Rihanna is back in business.
Lady Gaga The Fame Monster Interscope
Earlier this year, it seemed premature to label Lady Gaga as the next Madonna, simply because she only had one album out and also because she owes just as much of her inspiration to artists like Grace Jones and David Bowie as she does the material girl. But with a number of high-profile and insane award-show performances and the release of her new mini-album, “The Fame Monster,” this year’s “it” girl gets a lot closer to prying Madonna’s pop mantle from her expensively manicured hands.
The eight new songs on this record showcase just how adept Miss Gaga is at genre-hopping while remaining true to her freakish pop sensibilities. The glossy and ambitious electro-pop and powerful choruses she’s now famous for still blow the doors off on tracks like “Bad Romance” and “Monster.” The mini-diva summit that is “Telephone,” featuring Beyoncé, isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s still bound to be another dance-floor hit dripping with sass.
Other tracks get a little more adventurous, with “Dance in the Dark” pulling heavily from gothic synth-pop territory with amazing results. “Speechless” sounds almost completely analog in a very convincing stab at Elton John-influenced ’70s rock. The sampled Native American chanting in the background gives a unique flavor to the minimalist bluesy stomp of “Teeth.”
“Alejando” seems restrained by comparison, coming across like the best song Ace of Base never wrote. Normally that would be a high-grade insult, but not in this case. Gaga nails it.
Is this album a monster?
Shakira She Wolf Epic
Shakira’s latest collection of tunes can be a bit too predictable at times, but the international superstar still has some interesting tricks up her sleeve, and some genuine thrills can be found on “She Wolf.”
The closer she stays to her Latin and hip-shaking influences, the better. The stripped-down and percussive groove of “Long Time” is far more interesting than the calculated and Daft Punk-leaning title track and the too-plastic pop of “Did It Again.”
But here’s the crazy thing: The Spanish versions of both those songs, “Loba” and “Lo Hecho Esta Hecho” (along with some others), work so much better. Strange but true.
Shakira’s voice is distinctive and good enough on its own without all the digital wizardry that she really should stop pandering to mainstream American audiences and messing up a perfectly good Spanish song by singing it in English.
Some of the English-language songs are worthwhile, though. Simplicity and funkiness save the day on selections such as “Spy,” featuring Wyclef Jean. The Caribbean-flavored “Good Stuff” and the booty-bumping “Why Wait” are also excellent examples of less being more, in which the minimal instrumentation gives Shakira’s siren-like voice room to play. Also not to be missed is “Mon Amour,” a rousing rock song bristling with relentless energy.
Shakira, we love you, but real wolves eat sheep — they don’t copy them.
Tegan and Sara Sainthood Sire
Out Canadian duo Tegan and Sara continue to impress with their sixth album, “Sainthood,” exploring devotion, delusion and exemplary behavior in the pursuit of love.
Tegan and Sara seem to have their songwriting down to a science by now and, at times, seem like the second coming of Missing Persons (it’s their voices and intricate harmonies) — especially urgent and efficient, yet with sonically complex synth-augmented tracks in their arsenal like “Arrow,” “Night Watch” and “On Directing.”
But “Sainthood” isn’t all polish either. Garage rock also reigns on this record with sparser, more punk-influenced tracks like “Hell,” “Northshore” and “The Cure.”
Tegan and Sarah are at their best when they find a happy balance between those extremes. “Don’t Rush” is a strong, intense piece of new-wave-influenced rock muscle. “The Ocean” is an energetic piece of alt-rock that makes us miss the early days of R.E.M. A simple and laid-back vibe makes “Red Belt” a catchy standout as well.
Canadians are so freakin’ cool.